The Fijeh Water Project and the Cholera Epidemic in 1903 Damascus
By Benan Grams
On June 30th, 1903 Sultan Abdulhamid II approved a project to bring potable water to Damascus from the Ein el-Fijeh spring.1 The project was presented to the central government by Nazim Pasha, the governor of Syria, during a persistent cholera epidemic that afflicted Damascus throughout that year. Fresh water from the Fijeh spring, brought to the city in cast-iron pipes, was intended to replace the increasingly contaminated water of the Barada River that had for centuries supplied Damascus. During the implementation period, Damascus turned into a construction site as drills and cranes laid massive iron pipes beneath the city. When the project was completed in 1908, people celebrated the delivery of fresh water through more than 200 water taps that were imported from Europe and distributed throughout Damascus.2
Historians of Ottoman Damascus have traditionally read the project primarily within the paradigm of modernity and the socio-political changes that Damascene society was undergoing in the second half of the nineteenth century. During the governorship of Nazim Pasha, from 1898 to 1908, the modernization movement that started in the 1860s picked up pace. The city witnessed large scale infrastructural projects in different parts of the city and in different domains. The Fijeh water project is commonly listed alongside these urban infrastructural developments.
The 1903 Fijeh water project, while it was a modern project, was undertaken in response to the difficult circumstances caused by the 1902 cholera epidemic. The provincial and central governments were determined to contain the outbreak and prevent its spread to other parts of the empire as well as to prevent it from interfering in the upcoming pilgrimage season. Both governments deemed the project necessary as a step towards preserving public health in the city. Anxiety over public health was the primary factor behind the proposal for the Fijeh waterworks. So, can we say that the 1902 cholera epidemic caused the initiation and implementation of as a costly and long-term project as Fijeh Project in Damascus?
Attributing major changes solely to epidemics would constitute a reductionist, disease determinist argument and would be buying into the myth of “good epidemic.” According to the idea of the “good epidemic” the recurrence of diseases like cholera and typhoid forced decision makers to pay attention to the poor conditions of public health infrastructure, leading to the sanitary movements of the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries.3 The case of Damascus shows, I argue, that if the crisis of an epidemic is long enough, harming the interests of those with the power and money to call for change, then it can indeed have a forcing impact.
Examination of the circumstances during the 1903 cholera epidemic reveals that economic considerations may have factored in making the decision to undertake the Fijeh water project. Unlike similar works in European and other Ottoman cities where a desire for profits by water companies had driven development, the undertaking in Damascus was not for profit. Concerns over economic losses rather than the desire for economic gains garnered local support. The prolonged debilitating economic effects of cholera on Damascus’s commercial activities harmed both the city’s merchants and burdened the Ottoman budget. Restricting entry into Beirut devastated the economy of Damascus which had grown increasingly dependent on Beirut’s port as an outlet for its commercial activities. Raw fruits and vegetables were identified as a potential vector of vibrio cholerai and were prevented from entering Beirut altogether. Later produce was permitted while dairy products from Damascus and its suburbs were banned from Beirut’s market through the summer of 1903. Commercial exchange with Aleppo and Egypt were similarly interrupted, exacerbating the impact on the economy. Even the mobility of individual Damascenes was restricted and a correspondent from Thamarat al-Founoun reported that Damascus resembled a ghost city where there was no other movement but that of the disease.4
The financial difficulties caused by the prolonged pandemic were also felt by the central government in Istanbul. The cholera epidemic started in September 1902 but unlike earlier epidemics it lasted over 18 months exhausting the government’s limited human and financial resources. Not anticipating a long period of battling the epidemic, the imperial capital sent to Damascus some of its own physicians and sanitation staff. It also covered the delegation’s salaries and travel expenses only for the first few months. But as the epidemic extended into the summer of 1903 the central government struggled to make physicians available and secure new equipment. When the deteriorating conditions in Damascus necessitated more fumigation machines and technicians, Istanbul municipality was unable to grant the request. The municipality admitted that having sent its own staff in the previous year created a shortage in Istanbul’s sanitation capacity and therefore cannot afford sending more staff. Additionally, the rising temperature and increasing typhoid cases in Istanbul made the municipality protective of its limited fumigating machines and technicians.
Under these dire conditions, it was in the interest of Damascus’ commercial class to find a long-term solution that could help lift the quarantine restrictions on the city’s commercial activities. At the same time, the central government wanted to reduce the cost of fumigation and sanitation machines, imported from Europe, and specialists, sent from Istanbul. The proposal for the Fije Water Project was born within these circumstances and provided this long-term solution for a recurring epidemic.
The Fijeh water project was not a private enterprise. It was largely funded by a raised tax on imported kerosene for a duration of five years. The rest of the funds was taken from the city’s annual revenue and the revenues from each of Syria’s three districts, Hawran, Karak, and Hama kaza. Construction work to bring the Fijeh water to Damascus commenced in 1906 and was completed in 1908.5 Upon its completion, the project was officially celebrated, and physicians anticipated an improvement in the city’s mortality and morbidity rates. In 1911, the municipality board noted that it had requested significantly fewer medical supplies from Istanbul as a result of a decrease in water-borne diseases in the city.6. According to contemporary accounts, based on professional opinions, diseases in Damascus had receded by 70% in the years following the project’s completion.7
Public health considerations continued to constitute a major factor throughout the life of the Fijeh water project even as it drained the city’s budget. Although it came at a time of accelerated modernization, the water project was not motivated by a wish to be or to look modern. The desire to improve public health, to reduce the possibility of epidemic outbreaks, to prevent the interruption of commercial activities, and to alleviate the burden on the central government were all reasons for initiating and persevering with the water project in Damascus.
The water project of 1903 was a precursor for a second round of Fijeh waterworks in 1932 championed by Lutfi al-Haffar, Syria’s first minister of commerce under the French mandate.8 The second project brought Fijeh water not only to Damascus’s streets, but into Damascene houses, changing a centuries-old practice of drinking water from the Barada River and forever changing the relationship of Damascus and its ancient river.
Benan Grams is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Georgetown University. Her
dissertation examines the impact of epidemics on the development of Greater Syria with the
focus on Damascus. Benan was awarded the Max Weber Stiftung Research Grant from the
Orient Institut in Istanbul in 2019 where she was a research fellow.
Citation: Benan Grams, The Fijeh Water Project and the Cholera Epidemic in 1903 Damascus, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.07.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/29303
- This is a short piece from a larger work on the impact of epidemic on public health measures in Ottoman Damascus.
- Muḥammad ʻIzz al-Dīn. ʻArabī Kātibī, Kitāb Al-Rawḍah Al-Bahīyah Fī Faḍāʾil Dimashq Al-Maḥmīyah / (Damascus: Al-Muqtabas, 1912), 35-37.
- For discussion of the idea of “good epidemic” and “cholera forcing” see Christopher Hamlin on “Cholera Forcing”: The Myth of the Good Epidemic and the Coming of Good Water.
- Thamarat al_Founoun-19030720_1439_005
- Stefan Weber, Damascus : Ottoman Modernity and Urban Transformation (1808-1918) (Århus [Denmark]: Aarhus University Press, 2009).
- ʻArabī Kātibī, Kitāb Al-Rawḍah Al-Bahīyah Fī Faḍāʾil Dimashq Al-Maḥmīyah.
- Muḥammad Saʻīd Qāsimī et al., Qāmūs Al-Ṣināʻāt Al-Shāmīyah (Damascus-Syria: Dār Ṭalās, 1988).
- Luṭfī Ḥaffār and Salmá al-Ḥaffār. Kuzbarī, Luṭfī Al-Ḥaffār, 1885-1968 : Mudhakkarātuh, Ḥayātuh, Wa-ʻaṣruh, Ṭabʻa 1. (Bairūt: Riyāḍ al-Rayyis lil-Kutub wa-al-Nashr, 1997).